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How to Get Your Captain's License

Thinking of becoming a fishing charter captain? First, you need to know how to get your captain’s license from the United States Coast Guard!

If you want to make money by running fishing charters, doing dolphin watches, dinner cruises, etc., the first thing you need to do is become a USCG licensed captain. The document that proves you are a licensed captain is called the Merchant Mariner’s Credential, more commonly known as the Captain’s License.

Looking for info on fishing licenses? Check out our full class offerings at

Where do I start?

The information provided by the USCG on their website can be confusing and hard to digest. Therefore, we’ve decided to make a simple breakdown of what the requirements are to apply for a USCG license, what documents you need, and how much it will cost you.

How do I prepare?

First off, you need to decide which type of captain’s license you need. There are several different types, but the most relevant for the fishing charter or RGV local businesses are:

  • The OUPV license (Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel license, more commonly called 6-pack license)

  • The Master’s license

The 6-pack license is what most charter operators will need. As the name suggests, this license allows you to carry up to six paying customers on your fishing charters.

There are two different categories (called ‘routes’) of six-pack licenses that are relevant for most charter boat captains: Inland and Near-coastal. The Inland route covers bays, rivers, and lakes (note that the Great Lakes have some extra regulations and requirements for the license). The Near-coastal route covers everything the Inland route covers, plus ocean waters up to 100 miles offshore. Since the Near-coastal category covers everything you will ever need, and is most revelant in the Texas coastal area, we recommend you go for that license.

The Master’s license allows you to carry more than six paying customers on a boat up to 100t heavy. Most headboat captains will need this type of license. However, this article will only cover how to get the 6-pack license, as that one is sufficient for the vast majority of captains.

Spend enough time on the water

The first requirement for applying for a USCG captain’s license is having spent enough time on the water. For an OUPV license, you must have spent 360 days piloting or crewing a boat. At least 90 days in the last 3 years. Additionally, 90 days have to be in the ocean in order to quality for a near-coastal license. To get a master’s license, you need 720 days of sea time, 360 of which need to be offshore and 90 of which need to be within the last three years.

If you own a boat, you can count the time spent on it towards your requirements. If you’re building up your hours on somebody else’s boat, they will need to certify that you were crewing or piloting it, not just riding as a passenger. Time spent crewing a boat or ship as part of military service can also count towards your hours, although it requires more detailed documentation.

Find yourself a school!

In order to apply for a USCG license, you’ll need to have passed the coast guard exam or an exam provided by a captain’s school. The second option is probably the safer one, because such schools thoroughly prepare you for the exam.

Moreover, they will help you choose the right license category for your needs, and show you what to do after you’ve passed the exam. We at Stewart Maritime Academy off the course and testing for the Near-Coastal route for between $850-$950.

Show me the list!

Once you’ve successfully passed your exam and if you’ve spent enough time on the water, you’re ready to apply for your 6-pack license! Of course, you’ll need a fair number of documents to submit alongside your application – this is bureaucracy, after all.

This is what you need:

  • Your United States Social Security Card

  • Proof of U.S. citizenship (or Green Card for foreign nationals)

  • Proof that you have paid the application fee

  • Completed application form (CG Form 719B)

  • Proof of completing your captain’s exam

  • A copy of your TWIC card. If your application for the TWIC card is in process, you can submit proof that you have applied.

  • Three written character references

  • Medical certificate including vision testing, no more than 1 year old

  • Valid first aid and CPR certification

  • Results of a random drug test, taken in the last 6 months

It’s a bit of a list, but once you gather these things you will be able to obtain your much-desired captain’s license. The whole process should cost you a little over $1,200. But then, finally, you’ll be a certified charter boat captain!

This is the first and most important step in becoming a paid fishing guide, etc. Now you just need a boat and the appropriate state licenses (and sufficient insurance is highly recommended).

One more thing that’s good to know is that veterans can get support and discounts when they’re setting up a business, including a charter fishing business.

Please note that, although we research thoroughly for each article we write, this information should be considered “as is” and is not legal advice.

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